Deyvani Khobragade, India’s deputy counsel general in New York, is allegedly guilty of visa fraud. Reportedly, she provided false information on her nanny’s US visa application, promising to pay her $9.75 per hour but instead paying her a mere $3.31, which was not only in contravention of what she stated on the visa application but also well below minimum wage. None of this may have ever come to the attention of US authorities, however, had the nanny, Ms Sangeeta Richard, not visited an immigration attorney to discuss her plight. Without getting into whether Ms Khobragade is entitled to diplomatic immunity or how well or poorly she was treated during the course of her arrest (as contradictory facts have emerged), let’s discuss India’s reaction to the episode.
The Indian government, affronted by the treatment meted out to its diplomat, retaliated in several ways. Revoking perks for US diplomats in India as a quid pro quo may be understandable, but India’s perversely draconian measures against Ms Richard, the nanny, who is as Indian as Ms Khobragade, are mind-boggling. Her passport was revoked, making her status in the US illegal. Her India-based husband and child were taken into custody. Legal action was instituted against her such that if she returns to India, she could face extortion charges. The message here was quite clear: how dare she? How dare a poor maid demand her rights in a foreign country and embarrass a higher-class Indian? And if she does, the entire state machinery will stand against her. One would think the poor nanny had revealed state secrets to an enemy nation to deserve such treatment.
What this saga has really done is seriously called into question India’s commitment to democratic ideals. What it’s shown is that not all Indians are equal in the eyes of the state. One wonders what the real issue is here. Is it the disrespect US authorities allegedly showed Ms Khobragade or is it the ego blow that diplomats of her pay grade can’t legitimately afford a nanny in the US? Many of India’s retaliatory actions reek of a colonial hangover and the desperation to look white folk in the eye and say ‘you can’t mess with us’. Well sorry to burst your bubble India, but until you can treat your own teeming millions with the respect and rights that they deserve, you cannot be in as strong a position as those calling you out on your shortcomings. In the meantime, you can revoke all the airport security passes you like. Incidentally, what were the American diplomats doing with them to begin with? Why put the Americans on a pedestal in the first place?
And that brings us to the other side of the story. The Americans are eager to portray themselves as the civilised nation that implements minimum wage laws and cares for worker rights. And while it is true that workers are far better protected in the US than in many other parts of the world, what would be the American reaction if say Ms Richard had applied for a US visa on her own? In all likelihood, she would have been turned down for the mere reason that she is not rich enough and hence, a potential drain on US society. Isn’t there a contradiction here? Don’t most civilised Western nations preserve the rights of those legally in their territory by denying access to much of the underprivileged world?
An even more glaring contradiction, moreover, is the attitude of American business and expats outside of the US. In the Gulf countries, in particular, Americans have, at best, looked the other way, and at worst, been equal partners in formulating policy and pay grades based on race and nationality such that they would be found patently discriminatory under US law. So, while enforcing worker rights may be cool back home, living a life akin to the British Raj may be preferable overseas. US v Khobragade must lead to intelligent discussion on how worker rights can really be protected across borders instead of limiting those rights to the select few who make it to Western shores. In a global world with rampant illegal immigration, this conversation is long overdue.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 26th, 2013.